Critics despise this band, and much of their stuff does leave a lot to be desired, although I actually like some of their million or so sappy ballads they released later on. However, much like other artists such as Steve Miller, Bob Seger, or the J. Geils Band, most people have inaccurate, or at least incomplete, viewpoints about the band, or at least about the early version of the band, so these reviews aim to rectify that. You see, far from the faceless hit machine that they later became, early on (to quote David Wild’s liner notes on the reissue) “Chicago seemed to want to be Jimi Hendrix and Cannonball Adderley and maybe Johann Sebastian Bach too.” Indeed, this was a “nervy double album that artfully sought to marry the more primal power of a great rock band with the creative freedom and range of jazz.” It may be hard for some of you to believe, but early on Chicago was a risk-taking unit of highly skilled players who were actually considered rather avant garde and who flat-out rocked, led by their powerful if somewhat sloppy guitarist Terry Kath and of course their prominent horn section (reed player Walter Parazaider, trumpeter Lee Loughnane, and trombonist/arranger James Pankow), which gave the band quite the full sound and was very unique at the time. Chicago also had three fine, distinctive singers with the deep-voiced, soulful Kath, keyboardist Robert Lamm, who occupied more of a middle ground and was also the band’s primary songwriter, and high-pitched bass player Peter Cetera. The album starts with a rousing “Introduction,” which is largely instrumental as per most of the songs and is indeed an excellent introduction to the band’s cool interplay; how can you not love Loughnane's supper club horn solo at around the 3-minute mark? The next three songs are among the bands very best. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” has an elusive magical quality (again, I adore Loughnane's horn intro) despite its nonsensical lyrics, though the single version without the unnecessary piano intro and the talking in the background is even better. The epic “Beginnings,” I confess, is one of my all-time favorite songs. Some might find fault with the admittedly corny lyrics, a weakness throughout the album, but I prefer to consider them “uplifting,” and besides, it’s the wonderful music that matters most anyway. Right from the acoustic guitar intro, followed perfectly by bass and then horns, you can tell that this track is something special. The song builds and builds, peaking when drummer Danny Seraphine, whose performance throughout the latter half of the track is phenomenal, takes over at around the 3-minute mark; the song continues to surge until the blaring horns then take over, one by one, ultimately leading into the frenetic “it’s only the beginning" finale, where Cetera takes over from Lamm as the primary singer. Perhaps the extended Latin percussion coda is over-long, but overkill was the name of the game for the album as a whole, as few rules were followed and there are some inconsistent results where the bands chance taking acumen doesn't quite work out. “Question 67 & 68” is another inspiring pop song – one that starts with a guitar solo, oddly enough - with a terrific Cetera vocal, and another highlight is a cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man” that’s much longer (7:39) and wilder (especially the vocals) than the original. There are other strong entries, too, such as “Listen,” which contains a nice mix of soloing and songwriting, “Poem 58,” another extended solo-fest on which Kath shows why one Jimi Hendrix famously said he was “better than me.” I beg to differ, but Kath, for all his previously remarked upon flaws, was extremely expressive and in my opinion was one of the all-time underrated performers on the instrument, and the also underrated rhythm section is also prominent on this hard rocking track. Elsewhere, the politically charged “Someday (August 29, 1968)” also has an admirable intensity, and parts of the generic blues “South California Purples” and “Liberation” are worthwhile as well, though the latter badly meanders towards the end of its near-15 minutes while showing few moves that the band hadn't already presented before. Still, the album’s only major misfire, and it’s a bad one, is “Free From Guitar,” which is basically unlistenable as Kath scrapes together a dissonant extended solo that never fails to make me search for the fast forward button. Overall, how much you like this album will depend in large part how much you like improvisational soloing, for, though there are some excellent songs here, the band’s overreaching ambition ensures that they sometimes deliver too much of a good thing. Fortunately, I really like the band’s sound as well as most of these songs, though the self-indulgence is a bit much at times and I’m not always in the mood for a “rock band with horns” (as opposed to Blood, Sweat & Tears who were more jazz and soul influenced rather than rock influenced; both bands were produced by James Guerico). Still, before you dismiss Chicago as a bunch of wimpy top 40 sellouts, you owe it to yourself to at least listen to this album, which I’d rank as a minor classic and which shows the band in an entirely different light than what is the common perception of them.
Chicago II (Columbia '70, Rhino '02) Rating: A-
The long jams are gone, Kath’s guitar is less prominent while the horns take center stage, and the band goes for a more polished, pop friendly sound as Guerico moved the band more towards the Blood, Sweat and Tears model. They were rewarded with three top 40 hits, "Make Me Smile" (#9), "Colour My World" (#7), and "25 Or 6 To 4" (#4), making this the band’s breakthrough release, commercially speaking. Other things to note are that the songwriting is more evenly distributed this time, with Pankow in particular stepping to the fore, and that the album is extremely wide-ranging and eclectic stylistically, it’s overly elongated 67 minutes touching on a variety of different styles, some more successfully than others. The album contains three extended song suites, each housing various individual “movements.” “The Memories Of Love” suite, encompassing tracks 15-18, sports a classical feel and is tastefully arranged and pretty but a bit boring, while the politically-minded “It Better End Soon” suite, encompassing tracks 19-22, is more lively but is often musically undistinguished and lyrically overbearing. Much better is the flat-out fantastic “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” suite, encompassing tracks 6-12, including both versions of “Make Me Smile.” The latter version is actually called “Now More Than Ever”; here the two songs are interrupted by several tracks, including the lovely prom-worthy piano ballad “Colour My World” (which makes me think of the theme song to “The Young And The Restless” and features a moving vocal from Kath and a memorable flute solo), whereas they’re spliced together on the famous single version. Either version is wonderful, particularly its catchy uplifting chorus, plus Seraphine’s stellar drumming really brings the song to life. Other notable tracks outside of the suites are “Movin’ In,” mostly due to its singable “yes we know it" harmonies, “In The Country,” which sees Kath letting loose and is enhanced by its traded off vocals, “Wake Up Sunshine,” a great upbeat pop song, and “Where Do We Go From Here,” a solid if simplistic finale that’s notable for being Cetera’s first songwriting contribution to the band. Of course, the highlight of the album is “25 or 6 to 4,” which is ostensibly about writer’s block but which is really all about Kath’s wicked wah wah guitar soloing and the great horn arrangements. Damn, horns seem to be flying all over the place, and if you’ve ever doubted Chicago’s ability to rock out, think again. Alas, as previously mentioned, this album is too long for its own good, as several other songs not mentioned fail to really register, making me wonder why the band felt it necessary to release a second consecutive double album. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good and even several great songs here, and even most of the lesser efforts are competently arranged and are quite listenable. Still, I wish they had better edited themselves and let Kath run amok a bit more like on the first album, but I guess you can’t blame a young, ambitious, and talented band for trying new things, especially since they hit their target far more often than not. Note: Although the official title of the album was Chicago, it came to be known and was re-released as Chicago II, keeping it in line with the succession of roman numeral-titled albums that officially began with Chicago III in 1971. This was group svengali Guerico’s idea as he marketed the band as a brand name, suppressing any individual accolades, and given the band’s massive commercial success I guess the strategy worked, though I’d imagine that not everyone was happy with it. Note #2: Chicago was originally called Chicago Transit Authority (hence the title of their first album), but they changed their name due to legal pressure from the real Chicago transit authority.
Chicago III (Columbia '71) Rating: B+
Talk about productive: Chicago III was the band’s third double album of new material in under two years! And though like most double albums this one could’ve been edited down a bit, this somewhat overlooked album, which spawned only two minor hits in contrast to the blockbuster that was II, again shows what an interesting band of musicians Chicago was early on. I mean, not many bands could boast five strong songwriters (led by Lamm as per usual) and such outstanding overall musicianship, and though perhaps their “let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” philosophy is misguided at times, it makes for fascinating if flawed listening, though I must say that the overall songwriting lacks the memorable hooks of the first two albums. Still, there’s lots of fine material here for patient listeners who are willing to live with the album for awhile, beginning with the 9-minute “Sing A Mean Tune Kid,” a funky, aggressive, guitar heavy rocker that reminds me of the raw, loose vibe of their first record. There’s some extensive soloing elsewhere as well, including far too many flute solos, but it’s good to see Kath’s guitar occupy a more prominent position even as the horns are toned down from time to time, while Lamm’s keyboards are also more noticeable, which is fitting when one considers the more jazz-inclined direction of the album. With three extended suites occupying 17 of the 23 tracks, this album also obviously harks back to their previous album, and overall this is the band’s most wide-ranging and diverse offering to date, even if, likely due to fatigue, they weren’t entirely inspired from a songwriting standpoint. Then again, “Free,” a somewhat generic but energetic rocker, and “Lowdown,” a catchy, horn heavy pop number from Cetera, did reach the top 40, and Cetera’s poppy, melodic “What Else Can I Say” and lovely “At The Sunrise” (actually written by Lamm/Seraphine/Kath/Parazaider, as was the entirety of the “Travel Suite” of which this is a part of) are other songs that easily could’ve been hits. Elsewhere, “Loneliness Is Just A Word” has a low-key, jazzy vibe, “Flight 602” is a pleasant, folksy ditty obviously influenced by Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home” also has an attractive pop melody along with expansive jam-based sections, and “Mother” is a throbbing groover with some hot horn interplay. As for the suites, well, I’ve already remarked upon some of the songs on the hit-and-miss “Travel Suite” (tracks 5-10), whose major miss is the boring flute showcase “Free Country,” plus an overall theme that had already become a tired cliché in rock circles. Comparatively short at around 6-7 minutes, I like Kath’s “An Hour In The Shower Suite” (tracks 13-17) quite a bit, mostly because I love his passionate, soulful singing style, while Pankow’s ambitious, classically influenced “Elegy Suite” (tracks 18-23) ends the album with a primarily instrumental piece (aside from a horribly pretentious albeit brief spoken-word intro) that’s largely successful, though again it’s not perfect as I far prefer some sections (the funereal “Canon,” the pretty “Once Upon A Time,” the aptly titled 6+ minute “The Approaching Storm”) to others (the atonal “Progress?”). But that’s Chicago III in general, as for every few good ideas, and there are a fair amount of them, there’s a misguided one such as Seraphine’s drum solo “Motorboat To Mars” (Danny was a great drummer but this showcase simply isn’t all that enticing) or Lamm’s annoyingly fake blues vocal on “I Don’t Want Your Money,” which otherwise has some good guitar playing going for it. Still, though I’d start with the previous two albums, which certainly have more memorable high points and hold together better as overall albums, I’d recommend this one as well to fans of those albums, with the caveat being that it’s less pop friendly and is more of an acquired taste. Regardless of what you think of their later days as “corporate sell outs,” I for one greatly admire the sheer ambitiousness and musicality of the earliest incarnation of the band. Note: After the singles for III were comparative failures, “Beginnings" (edited to around 3 minutes) and "Question 67 & 68" were re-released, both becoming top 40 hits two years after the debut.
Chicago V (Columbia '72) Rating: B+
The band’s first single album followed Chicago at Carnegie Hall, or Chicago IV, a much-criticized criticized (most famously by Lester Bangs) four-album live box set that actually made their previous albums seem unpretentious by comparison! By contrast, Chicago V was a fairly modest collection containing a mere 10 tracks, eight of which were penned by Lamm, including “Saturday In The Park,” a #3 hit that’s arguably the band’s signature song. This catchy pop nugget is damn near irresistible; I love the pounding piano intro, Lamm gives a rock solid vocal performance (and Cetera chimes in as well), the horns are perfectly placed, and the lyrics (excluding the nonsensical Italian words) really do take you to a sunny Saturday in the park. The album’s other high points are the Pankow penned “Now That You’ve Gone,” an excellent rock song with uplifting harmonies (again led by Cetera), soaring horns, and an impressive sax solo from Parazaider, and “Dialogue, Pt. 1,” another top 20 hit and popular radio track that features some great rhythm guitar (seemingly inspired by the Jackson 5), terrific traded off vocals between Cetera (who plays the young carefree student) and Kath (who plays the worried older pessimist), and exceptional rhythm work by all involved (Cetera on bass was very underrated in that area). It continues with "Dialogue, Pt. 2," which I’ve always found much less impressive; despite some strong guitar work from Kath, I’ve always felt that this overly long and repetitive album version probably could’ve been cut in half (I therefore prefer the shorter single version of the song). Anyway, I also really like the rumbling, jazzy groove of “A Hit By Varèse,” whose horns are really something (including several solo turns on trumpet and sax), making for an at times challenging but largely enjoyable showcase for their stellar musicianship. By contrast, though it’s still heavy on the horns, “All Is Well” is Chicago at their most commercial, though in this case that’s a good thing as this airy pop song, another breakup song a la “Now That You’ve Gone,” is a mellow winner. In all honesty, aside from “Saturday In The Park” I’ve always found side two to be much less impressive, finding “While The City Sleeps” and “State Of The Union” annoyingly political (preachy lyrics remain a Lamm weakness), despite some cutting guitar from Kath on the former and a rare stab at funk on the latter. Fortunately, though “Alma Mater” is a rather limp ballad by Kath, the jazzy, melodic “Goodbye” is another strong track that really swings, with another enjoyable trumpet solo topping it off. So, the final tally is three truly outstanding songs, several very good songs, and a few so-so songs that for the most part are still worth hearing, if for nothing else than to hear the horns, which are very prominent throughout the album and are more often than not outstanding (this album features Pankow’s best horn arrangements, as a case could be made that this is both Pankow and Lamm’s best album). There are no over-elaborate suites or sappy love songs here, just a strong batch of songs showing early Chicago doing what they did best, namely adventurous rock music with jazz and pop influences. Heavy on the horns, with excellent musicianship and strong (often harmonized) singing, Chicago V, largely on the back of "Saturday In The Park," became the band's first #1 album in the U.S., spending 9 weeks at the top spot.
Chicago VI (Columbia '73) Rating: B-
The first of several albums recorded at Guerico’s custom-built Caribou Studios in Colorado, VII is a definite comedown from previous high points but nevertheless features two classic songs (“Just You And Me” and “Feeling Stronger Every Day”) and several other solid tracks. “Just You And Me” is a supremely melodic pop ballad with simple, romantic lyrics that a pessimist might find corny but which I find appealing; the horns are prominent, Cetera steps out with a strong lead vocal (from here on in he would sing virtually all of their hits until his departure from the band in 1985), and Parazaider adds a sultry sax solo, making this one a winner all the way around. “Feeling Stronger Every Day” is an uplifting, downright inspiring rocker with another fine vocal from Cetera; I love those “yeah yeah yeah” harmony vocals, Seraphine puts in a terrific drum performance, and the song builds to an exciting climax. Alas, none of the other songs approach the quality of those two, both of which also appear on any worthwhile Chicago compilation, so this album is really more for the hardcore than the casual fan. Part of the problem is that, aside from the hits, this album largely forsakes easily digestible pop hooks for a mellower, more reflective batch of songs, half of which were written by Lamm as per usual (though Pankow wrote the two hits, the latter in tandem with Cetera). Aside from “What’s This World Comin' To,” a busy, energetic horn workout on which all three singers take turns, the raw, free form experimentation of the debut is by now long gone, replaced by a more polished, lighter pop sound that exudes professionalism if not exactly excitement. Strangely, both Kath’s guitar and the horns are underutilized, and Lamm’s piano is more prominent than ever, while new member Laudir DeOliveira adds a more exotic conga-based percussion element to several songs, most notably “Hollywood,” one of two tracks (the other being “Something in This City Changes People”) that outline Lamm’s disillusionment with the L.A. lifestyle. Unfortunately, from a songwriting perspective too much of the album is nondescript, though I like Kath’s slide guitar work on “Darlin' Dear,” and “Rediscovery” has a funky, laid-back J.J. Cale feel that I find enticing. On the downside, Kath’s "Jenny" is most notable for lyrics about his dog and a melody that bears too close a similarity to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” Cetera’s “In Terms of Two” stands out due to his shaky harmonica playing, and worst of all is Lamm’s bitter, self-pitying "Critics' Choice" (besides, it’s not like any of the critics’ harsh words ever hurt the band at the box office). Maybe the high altitude and the band’s ridiculous work rate finally caught up to them, but on too much of Chicago VI the band sound both tired and uninspired, though they’re such pros that the overall end result is still mostly pleasant if a bit boring.
Chicago VII (Columbia '74) Rating: B+
Like most of their fans, the band themselves were somewhat disappointed with Chicago VI, so they decided to stretch out again one last time, with yet another double album, their most eclectic one yet. Given their recent success (Chicago V began an astounding string of five straight #1 albums in the U.S.), it was pretty ballsy to release an album on which the first five songs were comprised of jazzy instrumentals (which would all but disappear in the band's subsequent repertoire). These jazz sides are pretty inconsistent but are rarely less than interesting, and "Aire," which would fit perfectly within today's "smooth jazz" radio formats, is outstanding, highlighted by Kath's melodic guitar. Of course, there are several concessions to commerciality as well, including three top 15 singles in Pankow's "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long," Cetera's "Wishing You Were Here," and Loughnane's "Call On Me" (his first songwriting contribution to the band and a bulls eye), all sung by Cetera as per usual at this point. "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" really reminds me of “The Young And The Restless”, even more so than "Colour My World"; this one is a bit wimpy and predictable but still lovely, and it swells to an epic, symphonic sing along finale. Of course, "Wishing You Were Here," one of their most memorable songs, is notable for featuring several Beach Boys (Dennis and Carl Wilson, Al Jardine) on backing vocals, and the breezy "Call On Me" is a brassy, bittersweet pop ballad in what would become the band's signature style. At this point, however, Chicago was still a risk taking unit, and this album is all over the map, which can be both good and bad. Beyond the over-indulgent jazz side, there are a few other misses, as former main man Lamm was preoccupied with his upcoming (failed) solo album and therefore didn't contribute much songwriting of worth aside from the funky Cetera sung rocker "Woman Don't Want to Love Me." Fortunately, everybody else contributes, and there are other formidable highlights such as "Happy Man," another fine Cetera ballad, plus a pair of moody Kath tracks, in particular "Byblos," a sparse, pretty, story-based ballad with a Latin flavor. Actually, that distinctive "flavor" appears elsewhere as well, as DeOliveira becomes firmly integrated as a full-time band member and as a result there's a major percussive presence on the album, while the horns, though still often prominent, sometimes occupy a secondary role. Still, "Hanky Panky" is primarily a short Pankow showcase, and the salsa-flavored "Mongonucleosis" also boasts a good upbeat energy that's heavy on the horns. As per usual, lyrics are a weakness and the band has trouble editing themselves, but Chicago VI is the last time that they would really stretch themselves in a bid for artistic greatness, and I for one enjoy the majority of this album, which sees the band trying out all sorts of styles, hitting many high points along the way and rarely embarrassing themselves. For all its already commented upon faults, Chicago VI still sounds fresh and progressive even today, and those of you who would continue to dismiss the band as slick, predictable pop balladeers should at least give this ambitious epic album a try before doing so.
Chicago IX - Greatest Hits (Columbia ’75) Rating: A
This album, the one with the guys painting on the cover, is the Chicago album that most people have, and it's the Chicago album that I grew up with so it remains near and dear to my heart even though the later 2-cd compilation, The Very Best Of Chicago: Only The Beginning, is far more comprehensive (too comprehensive, many would argue). Despite its brevity (11 songs), this collection is still an excellent Chicago primer, as it contains most of the biggest and best hits from their best period (Chicago Transit Authority through Chicago VII). There are some strong songs that I miss, including hits such as "Questions 67 & 68," "I'm A Man," "Dialogue (Parts I & II)" (particularly Part I), and album tracks like “Wake Up Sunshine,” "At The Sunrise," “In The Country,” “Now That You’ve Gone,” and “What’s This World Comin' To,” but for those songs I guess you'll have to head to the original albums; this is just a starting point, after all, though it's an excellent listening experience on its own. To drive the point home yet again, “25 or 6 To 4” starts things off by showing that early Chicago could actually rock, with Terry Kath's wicked wah wah guitar solo leading the way. The end of this song segues perfectly into “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?;” I always hear these two songs together in my head and am disappointed whenever I hear “25 or 6 To 4” and it's not followed by the magical horn intro to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (they smartly scrapped the spoken-word intro that preceded it on the album track). Continuing, “Colour My World” is a gorgeous piano ballad with a deeply affecting Kath vocal, “Feeling Stronger Every Day” is a downright inspiring rocker, and let me reiterate that the epic “Beginnings” is one of my all-time favorite songs (they smartly truncated the elongated outro here as well). The rest, including "Just You 'N' Me," “Saturday In The Park,” "Make Me Smile" (the single edit that also includes "Now More Than Ever"), “Just You And Me,” "Wishing You Were Here", "Call On Me," and "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" are all really good too, despite what some lazy critics might say. Anyway, Chicago are not entirely unfairly slagged off as being a longstanding hit machine known for playing it safe, with their tossed off album titles alone making them an easy target for critics while reinforcing their faceless identity. This was especially true after Kath’s bizarre self-inflicted death in 1978 (he accidentally shot himself with a gun that he thought wasn’t loaded), as he was the soul of the band and the focus of their live shows. The band continued onwards, and several smash hit ballads made it easy for them to settle for a successful mushy ballad formula, as Peter Cetera became the focal point of the band whereas early on he was probably only the band's fourth most important member (certainly behind Lamm and Kath and probably behind Pankow as well). Perhaps I'll detail some of their commercially successful later career (which briefly thrived even after Cetera left the fold in 1985) at another time, but for now the purpose of this page is to comment upon the early incarnation of the band, which is summed up in stellar fashion on Greatest Hits, which shows that from 1969-1975 the band’s innovative brand of horn-based rock music had more than a few memorable moments.
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